National Security

A Non-Traditional Tradition….Cops and Thanksgiving

By Stephen Owsinski:

It is nice to be employed. It is also nice to be employed enough to buy a hefty turkey, stuff it, bake it, and chow-down like bears right out of hibernation. But, chances are if you are employed as a cop, you won’t even get to see a wishbone or sit down and enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner in traditional fashion. Then again, “traditional fashion” is an odd precept for police officers. The nature of police culture dictates a lifestyle different than most others because…duty calls.

Throughout the year, cops are considered an essential resource and, therefore, must be on-duty; holidays are no exception. With that said, what do cops do on Thanksgiving Day? Well, nothing different than the norm…other than not dining with loved-ones, not undoing the belt-buckle, not falling in love with the couch, not flinging a bowl of chips in the air because of a questionable football play, not belching uncontrollably like a walrus, not hovering close to the restroom, not crawling back to the table for desserts, not breathing in the same airspace as the drunk uncle. You get the picture.

Instead, cops patrol their assigned zones, sectors, beats, and districts. In cop-speak, that could mean fixing a plate with squad-mates over at the sergeant’s house, ready to bolt when summoned. (With a police fleet parked outside, I’m certain the “sarge’s” neighbors loved the enhanced security blanket on Thanksgiving!)

The squad supervisor’s family welcomed us each year and, collectively, our team was thankful. It sure beat munching on vending-machine snacks in the industrial-strength confines of police headquarters.

But nothing stops the calls from coming in on Thanksgiving Day. Not David Blaine. Not the Easter bunny. Nothing! It appears many families have at least two drunk uncles yanking at opposite ends of the wishbone, creating a huge rift. That’s where cops come in. “I love my job. I love my job! Woosa, woosa.”

Cops and Turkeys Galore

For each Thanksgiving Day call, almost every table had a turkey in the center (some baked ham). And like most grandmas during meals, folks want to shove food at you. I politely decline “No thanks,” as I watch drunk uncle drink from the gravy boat.

Resolving the issues of others on any given day is endemic in police work. But on holidays, the tempo is different: folks are congregated as families should be; children get to see grandparents; drunk uncle gets to swim in alcohol (and gravy); and turkey farmers glow with revenue-filled coffers. In all, cops appreciate the variety and spice of life that people exhibit, albeit unwittingly. Laughter, reminiscence, raucous behavior…but kin were together when it counted most.

My family indulged in Thanksgiving Day celebration without me. But, the platter of leftovers was just as scrumptious when I got home in the a.m. As mentioned, cops live non-traditional lives, as do their families. But the police subculture has its own adaptations, like sergeants who open-up their homes when their squads are suited for duty.

“Black Friday”

For cops, Thanksgiving Day is followed by the annual apocalypse otherwise known as “Black Friday.” Yes, the day for the masses to acquire tons of great bargains and get a beat on Christmas shopping amounts to a fiasco for police. Like bowling balls to pins, people plow through. Shoplifters prey upon abundant merchandise; cops just pray. Cash- and card-carrying consumers seem to misplace dignity (and their minds) and add to the chaos of Black Friday shenanigans. Translation: people beat each other up over “gifts-giving” pursuits.

On my last Thanksgiving Day midnight shift, I was patrolling through big-box store retail hubs. The extra-long line of shoppers extended from the merchant’s door across the parking lot; people were oblivious to a police cruiser trying to pass on through. (If you are wondering why they stood in the parking area instead of the sidewalks, three doors is the answer: humans lined on the sidewalks from the left and right doors, and the parking lot line stemmed from the middle door; in effect, impeding vehicular traffic.) Like congregated penguins, the horde of shoppers barely gave an inch, and scantly waddled so that their place in-line would not be forfeited because of the policeman’s right-of-way. It was like confronting a clog of protesters, minus the protest.

It is counter-intuitive, really. It is a display of desperate measures humans take to one-up each other, in order to be a giver to someone else. Whimsical, but nothing extraordinary for cops.

Purses were abundant, so pre-empting strong-arm thieves was one of my concentrations. Driving over toes was another.

Nevertheless, although I missed breaking bread with my family, I was content to do so with my brothers and sisters who swore the same oath.

In my final year as a street cop I was battling cancer and, introspectively, took stock in being among those who I knew would lay down their lives for mine. That silent pact among cops is the siren only police can hear and respond to. The tacit principle of cohesion is the same among our military service members. It epitomizes the most essential things to be thankful for. So, on my last Thanksgiving Day working the blue beat, I was grateful to have it as it were. I appreciated my family’s understanding, unwavering support of police service; implicitly, they made sacrifices as well.

Today, I am thankful to be here with the ability to express these words.

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer.

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